After some holidays, lots of internal meetings, and some insane travel schedules, things are settling back down this week just in time for me to head to TEC. So I can get back to spending time with Quest’s customers, partners, and having great discussions with people. In the last week, I had three excellent conversations, one with a panel of folks moderated by Martin Kuppinger from Kuppinger & Cole set up by ETM [link to podcast site], another with Don Jones and an audience of folks asking questions set up by redmondmag.com [link to webcast], and the third just today with Randy Franklin Smith [link to webinar site]. All these discussions revolved around managing identity (of course); they focused on the business’s view of IAM, wrapping proper security controls around Active Directory, and controlling privileged user access, respectively. Even though the subjects seemed quite far apart, a common question emerged: how do you translate the policy the business has in mind (or the auditor has in mind) into something actionable which can be enforced through a technical control? Put another way, the problem is how to take wishes expressed in business terms and make the come true with technology. To me, this is the central question in the IAM world. We have many ways to enforce controls, many ways to create compound rules, many ways to record and manage policies. But the jump from a policy to a rule is the tricky bit.
Let’s take an example and see what we can do with it. Everyone in the US and many around the world know SOX, and most that know it are familiar with section 404. There is a great wikipedia article about SOX section 404 if you want to brush up. Section 404 makes the statement that it is “the responsibility of management for establishing and maintaining an adequate internal control structure and procedures for financial reporting.” While this makes sense, it’s hardly actionable. And businesses in the US have relied on many layers of committees and associations to distill this. What is that process? It’s lawyers and similarly minded folks figuring out what executives can be charged for if they don’t do things correctly in the face of vague statements like the one above. So they come up with less and less vague statements until they have something they feel is actionable. Of course, what they feel is actionable and what some specific IT department sees as actionable may be quite different.
From the filtering at the high levels of the interbusiness activities you get a statement like “Understand the flow of transactions, including IT aspects, sufficient enough to identify points at which a misstatement could arise,” which comes from the work done by the SEC and POCAB to interpret SOX section 404. That approaches something IT can dig into, but it’s hardly actionable as is. But now a business can take that, bring it inside the organization, and have their executive management and IT work out what it means to them. Of course, there are scads of consultancies, vendors, and others who would love to assist there. Your results may vary when it comes to those folks, or your own folks, being able to make these statements more or less actionable. With this specific statement about the “flow” of data and not allowing “misstatement” to arise, there is general agreement that having IT staff with administrative powers that could, in theory, alter financial data is a risk that needs to have a control. And from that general agreement has risen an entire market for privileged access management products that allow you to restrict people who need administrative rights to do operational tasks in IT infrastructure from using those rights to somehow change data that would be used in any kind of financial reporting (or use that access to do any number of other things covered by other sections of SOX or other regulations like PCI, etc.).
What should be apparent is that things like RBAC, ABAC, and rules based approaches to access control are all simple and straightforward when compared to taking policy and making it actionable. Putting an RBAC system into place is taking action. But, as anyone who has been through an RBAC roll out will tell you, the hardest bit is figuring out the roles. And figuring out the roles is all about interpreting policies. So what is the answer for all those folks on these webcasts who wanted to know how to master this art? The short answer is like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. The medium length answer is to find a consultancy and a vendor that you trust and that have had the right amount of practice and make them do it for you. The long answer is to follow the path I took above trying to explain the question. You need to analyze the requirements, break them down, and keep doing that until you start getting statements that look slightly actionable. Of course, that takes a huge amount of resources, as evidenced by all the money that’s been spent on SOX alone in the US (that same wikipedia article quotes one study that says the cost may have been 1.7 trillion USD). And the final trick is to take your actions and breakdowns back to the top, your auditor or CISO or whomever started the chain, and validate them. That’s a step that gets skipped all too often. And then you see million dollar projects fail with one stroke of an auditor’s pen.
If you attended Gartner’s IAM Summit in San Diego last week, you may have a few lumps on your head. They’re from being beaten over the head with the identity intelligence stick. Earl Perkins led a charge up the slope of business importance for identity management that hopes to secure it a place in the highest levels of business intelligence and decision support. I’m all for it. One thing that was said on stage more than once was that if the IAM professionals of the world keep concentrating their efforts on plumbing like provisioning connectors they are going to be out of a job as vendors make those bits of pipe commodity. A bit melodramatic, but not entirely untrue. But what didn’t float down from the high minded discussion on stage was a clear set of examples for this identity intelligence. Even in the final session of the conference’s second day, the audience was asking in several forms for the panel of analysts to give some clear use cases. And in the very last session folks commented that they felt like most of this intelligence stuff was too high minded to use in practice. Of course, it’s not really fair to ask for all that. Partly because it’s not the place of the analysts to put things into a final form and partially because it breaks their business model to give you the whole picture in the conference. The conference is that start of a process they would like to draw you into – a process the people who can’t see it all clearly probably need more than those who can.
I think intelligence, on every level of IT and security and especially in the world of IAM, is poised to make a big impact. It only makes sense. The technology is there to do it. Intelligence is all about saving time and effort, which means saving money. There is no better time for money saving ideas than right now. Some in the hallways were very unconvinced. But it reminded me of the quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” I’d say the majority of the people in the halls were somewhere between the ignoring and the ridiculing. Few seemed prepared to fight. And just a handful came by the Quest booth asking about that label “Identity Intelligence” on our signs like it was a good thing. We’ll be rolling out our vision of a way to apply intelligence to IAM soon enough. And the idea that there is too much emphasis on plumbing is exactly the right mindset. Those seeking use cases really ought to look in the pantheon of classics. Because intelligence won’t be about doing different things in most cases. It will be about doing the same things in a better way. Intelligence will also deliver on goals in IAM project plans that, in the past, seldom became reality.
Not every session was focused on the intelligence theme. The sessions with Bob Blakley and Lori Rowland were much more practical, of course, having the Burton Group spin to them. My personal favorite session was one presented by Perry Carpenter called “Innovative Plumbing: Five Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Leveraging Your IAM Investment in Unexpected Ways“. Perry took the audience through some counter-intuitive sounding pieces of advice that were very practical. You can get the slides online, but the gist of the list was this:
- use a virtual directory for easier migrations & application development
- use ESSO usage statistics to provide BI/DSS for roles & provisioning
- save on cost with identity graveyard outside directories where you’re paying per user fees
- use your web proxy to deliver policy detail that explains effects of bad behavior like malware just in time as users commit out of policy offenses
All of it is sound advice. It all stresses something we don’t hear enough in IAM – KISS (keep it simple stupid).
Unless you’re living in a tech cocoon, you’ve seen the google real time search buzz (no pun intended). What I immediately envisioned was a system where you could have the same type of feedback for your actions, but applied to operation of IT and business interactions with IT managed resources. As one article I read wisely noted:
The reason this is a game changer is feedback. When you get feedback, you change your behaviors. Think about it. When you push a door and it doesn’t open quickly, you push harder. When you try to drive a car up a hill and it doesn’t go as fast as you would like, you step on the gas. Feedback changes your behavior.
The emphasis is mine. I’m thinking about a system where an administrator who wants to put a new statistic on a dashboard, a statistic drawn from the monitoring systems they have in place, may hit the button to do so and get a message stating that if she does it it will result in the following enterprise roles seeing this statistic. If the statistic reveals data that is not appropriate for all those roles it may immediately give the administrator pause. The proper remediation may be to examine what roles have been associated with those dashboard resources, or perhaps to examine who is associated with those roles in more detail. But that feedback would surly have some effect on how the administrator decides to do their work.
That would be a very cool thing indeed.
There were a lot of points at Catalyst 2010 where Kim Cameron’s Interscaler, Federated Directory and Identity Schema came up in my mind, though went unmentioned by the speakers. I know I wasn’t alone, either. It was there like a ghost in every discussion. When Anil John spoke about Background Attribute Exchange (BAE), one of the first questions was about how to ensure schemas would be in sync. When Nishant Kaushik spoke about federated provisioning, again questions had everyone talking about how directories would be able to rely on attributes being “exchangeable” across domains. And when the folks from GM gave their talk the second or third question was about how they decided what attributes would be included in their avatar identities and which would not.
How does this move forward? I get dizzy when I look at all the standards bodies around identity. I’ve got a lot of energy to offer around this and don’t know where to push it. It’s not about a product or a vendor. I’d like to see this be an industry thing that everyone can benefit from.
My esteemed fellow Quester Jackson Shaw just blogged about SAML being used for ABAC. I also heard a lot of talk about this at RSA last week in side conversations. I thought I may talk about it a bit; now Jackson’s given me the opportunity. It seems that using SAML to cure the ails of other less mature MLs is all the rage. I’ve also been watching Jeff Bohren‘s posts about SPML and SAML. In that case SPML is set against SAML + LDAP. I think it’s all related.
SAML is taking off. There are a lot of platforms and vendors supporting it, architects and developers are adopting it and it seems to have a mature set of features that are making all of them happy. But then you look to the next set of issues, provisioning (specifically just in time provisioning) and authorization, and you find much less satisfying results. So people have the old “if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” short circuit and start asking why not use the thing everyone likes, SAML, for those problems, too? The saml.xml.org site gives a clear explanation of how SAML can be applied to ABAC:
SAML is being applied in a number of different ways, one of which is Attribute-based authorization. The attribute-based authorization model has one web site communicating identity information about a subject to another web site in support of some transaction. However, the identity information may be some characteristic of the subject (such as a person’s role in a B2B scenario) rather than, or in addition to, information about when and how the person was authenticated.
Like every hammer brought to bear on a screw, it falls short a bit. If all you need to do is pass attributes into the application, then SAML will help for sure. But if you’re looking for a way express and store policy about the content of those attributes and what the resultant set of decisions should be based on the expression of those policies, then you’re out of luck. That, and more, is precisely what XACML is; as wikipedia nicely states: “XACML … is a declarative access control policy language implemented in XML and a processing model, describing how to interpret the policies.” To really solve the authorization problem, that’s what you need. And you especially need it if you want to solve the even larger issues around having common policy applied across many applications all sharing a common policy set, policy storage and management and policy delivery.
Access control traditionally combines two related, but distinct, functions:
- Authentication – The real-time process of confirming a user’s claimed identity with a specified, or understood, level of confidence.
- Authorization – The real-time process of deciding whether a user can interact with a particular resource in a particular way and enforcing that decision
Though I typically hear people discuss this as if authentication was one thing and access control is used as a synonym for authorization. If people use Ant’s definition, then SAML already handles all of the authentication part and can play in the authorization part as well by supplying attributes. But if access control is being used as a synonym for authorization, then SAML has less to offer since it only supplies the attributes and leaves the application to do the heavy lifting.
Under any definition of authorization, I think it’s safe to say that SAML will only be able to make a significant contribution after some heavy modification to include a lot of the XACML elements or through the emergence of some other cooperative standard that laps XACML and is very “SAML friendly”. Neither one of those is on any horizon I see. And any extension of SAML to be more XACMLish will only bring all the practical challenges that XACML adoption faces (application refactoring, policy definition, inter-application cooperation, etc.). And wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of using your nice hammer to make the handle 20 feet long and the head 50 pounds heavier?
So I missed the Kuppinger Cole webinar with Felix Gaehtgens on ABAC, but I read the materials and the Q&A was really good. What it got me thinking was that there may not be enough good stuff in the world explaining the basic differences between RBAC and ABAC and why one may be better than the other. So here’s my take on it.
First, let’s set up what RBAC is. RBAC stands for Role Based Access Control. The idea is that instead of granting individuals access to assets the access is granted to a role. Individuals are then associated with the role and thereby gain access to the assets. Like with so many things, there is a decent wikipedia article on RBAC, but it fails to capture some of the basic flaws I see. If you were to draw a picture of RBAC, it may look like this:
From left to right in the above diagram, you have the asset to which access is being granted. Then there is some form of a rule which is controlling access to that asset. If the asset were a file, then the permissions in the filesystem for that file would be the rule. Then you have the roles. The roles can have users associated in a number of ways. Attributes can determine the user being associated. Rules can also be used to determine role association. And a user can also simply be declared to have a role explicitly. Last you have the users and all their attributes. If the users were in AD, then the attributes would be all the attributes of the user object. In this RBAC model, the assumption is that controlling and maintaining access is easier since there doesn’t have to be a direct relationship maintained for every user. The roles act as an abstraction layer. When assets were all files and the rules that governed access to them were very simple, that made sense. Now assets are much more than files on disk, there is almost always a middle application tier involved, and the rules are very robust.
In this newer, application ruled world, there are many issues with RBAC. First, asset owners must be aware of role details in order to make their choices about what roles get access. To grant access to the wrong roles means granting access to the wrong user. So all the logic for the granting of the role must be understood by the asset owner and that means almost no advantage in terms of spreading out load for maintenance – everybody must understand everything. Second, there are now two layers of abstraction, rules and roles. This results in some very complex interactions which make it hard to get a grasp of just how access is being granted, and that is very bad come audit time. Third, access is now dependent on role maintenance. If there is a group maintaining the roles with a complex and locked down change control procedure and a nimble application group which needs a lot of changes, you end up with process timing mismatches that can cost real money. And last but far from least, new use cases for assets means new roles. Because the rules can only result in a pass or fail for roles, if there is a need to have a different access scenario there will be a need for a new role to match it. And that means role proliferation and more maintenance.
For those reasons and more, I believe ABAC is becoming more popular. ABAC is Attribute Based Access Control. It’s picture is much more simple:
Right away, it’s clear ABAC is cleaner. It eliminates the man in the middle and puts the users right in touch with the assets. The abstraction layer RBAC provides has become overhead in the face of the new ways the assets can govern themselves. The rules assets can use via their applications are more than enough to give flexibility to the asset owners. And since the users are likely to have a good set of attributes to draw on for evaluating their claim to access, there is no reason to add the other layer of roles to mitigate. The rules can simply evaluate attributes and be quite abstracted from the actual users. And since it’s much more likely that attribute stores are well maintained since they are linked to HR and other time and legally sensitive business drivers, there is much less likely to be issues with asset owners outpacing the maintenance of their source of access control information.
Of course, roles are not simply going away. The role of roles is changing. The new picture is really more like this:
The roles are not directly involved with access control rules – except perhaps that they may show up as an attribute of the user and be used in the rules evaluations. But the roles are very useful in the administration of massive sets of users. They are also very useful in the attestation, auditing and other security and identity processes around entitlement management. Maybe it’s time to think of RBEC, Role Based Entitlement Control. The idea being that entitlements, the security view of business rules for access, are governed and audited via roles. But we can keep the OLTP side of access control, the effective controls, in an ABAC form.
That’s a lot of typing. Hope someone finds it useful…
So I’ve finally had the time to digest a lot of the materials and notes I collected at catalyst 2009. Though the identity track had a lot of content around many topics, there was one theme I kept hearing again and again. Access control is king. That’s not news, but it seems like everyone is just coming back from role management, provisioning and other IAM projects to find that the core issue is still waiting to be solved.
The other thing that seemed to emerge, at least to me, was a distinction between the definition of entitlement management and access management. Entitlement management is the practice of deciding what business functions a person should have access to. So a statement about entitlements would be: “Sally Brown the Accounting Director may sign off to close the books at the end of a quarter”. That may be recorded in a system. And I think that is the ultimate goal of systems like Aveksa, Sailpoint and CA/Eurekify. But what seems to happen in those systems in a practical sense is that people record things at a technical level. So they end up with statements like: “people belonging to a group with an ID of 3345 may execute the sys_plx_camp_fog procedure in the PROD system”. Of course, that is useful to know. But it is still something that needs to be decoded. To their credit, all the systems let you put friendly names around these things, but that doesn’t address the core issue. The core issue is that people are using an entitlements tool to solve access issues. It is a process issue.
Access management is the practice of encoding and enforcing entitlements in the IT infrastructure. It’s where the rubber meets the road. So things in your access management solution should actually be able to touch your infrastructure and make it listen to policy. This type of tool has been around forever. Quest’s own ActiveRoles Server, Privilege Manager for Unix and others perform this role in various types of infrastructure. Another prime example is Keystone from BiTKOO, which does this using all the new OASIS pizzazz of XACML, PDPs, PEPs and such. And just like the entitlements tools get abused by the IT staff to do technical duties, you also see these tools getting pulled by the business to try and to entitlements work.
Of course, all of this goes back to that ever present prime mover in identity – compliance. Not the only reason people do IAM work, but one of the major drivers to be sure. And so the use of one product to do entitlements and access work is natural because people are trying to get things done under time constraints to avoid failures in the next audit and also under budget constraint since they (IT) are spending someone else’s money to do it.
About the Identity Sander
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